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If we burn, you burn with us: The 2019-20 Hong Kong protests

Emil Finnerud, Joachim Voll

Mass surveillance, infiltration and the Coronavirus: With the increasingly Orwellian Hong Kong cityscape as his backdrop, photographer Thaddé Comar recounts the dystopian reality of a people at war with their own government.

Gateavisa: How long where you in Hong Kong?

Thaddé: Two months, between the middle of August until the 17th of October.

Are you going back?

I think I have enough material to make a project. I felt in love with the city, and I would like to go back before it becomes Chinese (laughter). But for me, the project about Hong Kong is over. If I go back it’s to see friends and to enjoy this beautiful city.

What prompted you to go over there in the first place?

I did this project in 2017 about black blocks and the yellow vests in Paris, and I got a grant from Pro Helvetia. I did not really know how to use it, but I had a few ideas. And during the summer I was gathering information about Hong Kong and the way the protests occurred in this area. I saw the images of geared up people in this crazy cityscape and felt that this could be chapter two of this project. I got my tickets three days before leaving, and I took the grant money with me.

Before going to Hong Kong, for how long have you been covering the yellow vests in Paris? And for how long have you been working with rioters and black blocks?

I began during the rail worker strike at the end of 2016, staying in Switzerland, travelling to and from the protests in France. It’s been four years now and I still go to the protests with my camera.

These people, the black block anarchists, they are your friends, people you know?

I mean, I know a lot of people from the radical left and some of them are involved with the blocks sometimes, others are just very politically involved.

When you work as a photographer, how politically involved are you privately? As an artist, do these elements mix?

I have a political opinion for sure, but my opinions are not the most important part of my project. The project about black blocks and Hong Kong is based on a kind of formal approach, some neutrality even, in my photography and subjects. None the less, I agree with a lot of the points made from my black block friends and the people in Hong Kong.

The people you met and hung out with, the protesters, what kind of people are they?

Their ages ranged between 15 to 40 years old, give or take. Lots of women, especially among the younger ones, those between 15 and 25. So a lot of girls as well. Also, when you walk in the streets, when you go to the restaurant, when you take a taxi, you meet older people who support the younger protesters, albeit not participating in the protests themselves because of the danger. Of course, everyone is concerned, everyone has an opinion. But those who take to the streets, the ones regarded as “radicals” by the police, the Chinese authorities, are mostly between 15 to 40 years old.

Would you say that the amount of women and girls in the Hong Kong protests is surpassing the number of women protesting in France? And are the levels of aggression similar to the male protesters?

First of all, there are more people in the streets than in Paris. Every protest had something like 2000 frontliners, at least. It was like May Day in Paris, but every weekend. And there was a lot of girls, really active girls. All the roles in the protests are very specific. You have the ones who light the Molotov cocktails, then you have the ones who throw it. You have the ones who hold the umbrellas, you have the ones who disables the tear gas canisters, and so forth. A lot of the girls where the ones looking for the cops, for example. Lots of girls where holding the Molotov’s as well, but usually it was the boys throwing it. There were girls everywhere. They definitely had a very active role in the protests.

From a western perspective, what kind of philosophy or ideology was present? Marxist, anarchist, anti-capitalist, the left, or just anti-Chinese or anti-globalist?

This is something I hear a lot, people talking about anarchists and so on. This is not true. This is not an anti-capitalist protest. But they are beginning to understand that money is a big part of the game, that capitalism is one reason why they are not winning. If money keeps flowing into Hong Kong, then Hong Kong will not move for them. They understand that they have to get rich people involved. Hong Kong is the window into Chinese capitalism. If they block the economy then the Chinese authorities will have a problem. I was always telling them if you win these protests, the next protests you will have are going to be anti-capitalist (laughter). But in the beginning, it was not anti-capitalist, anarchist, Marxist. It was really anti-Chinese and pro-democracy.

Pro-democracy as in the west, like a European kind of democracy, or was it a different twist to it?

Yeah, they want the right to choose their president. This is not the case at the moment, because they only have the right to choose between three persons who are chosen by the Chinese government. They want full democracy and the release of every person incarcerated during the movement, among other demands.

Did you see any pacifist or anti-violence protesters?

Sure, but the biggest difference between France and Hong Kong is that pacifists were supporting violence. A lot of parents, fathers, older people, pacifists, they were telling me: “I’m not violent, I don’t want to be violent, but I understand that the violence is a necessity for the survival of the protests”. This is the first time I have seen non-violent people telling me that they were supporting and understanding the violence.

What was the spirit of the protesters? Did they believe in any kind of prosperous victory or was it more like a dark, nihilist battle with China that would end in carnage?

After the siege of the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong it became really dark for them. I have some friends from the university I was talking to on the phone. They seemed like they were in a post-traumatic state. Lot of them were crying at every point, it’s traumatic for them. A lot of their friends have been arrested. They are saying they want to leave for Taiwan, to Australia, Japan, Canada… A lot of them wants to leave in the next ten years before they are arrested.

So they don’t believe in any kind of victory? Or do they feel that the Chinese government is just too powerful?

Maybe it’s like Palestine somehow, that they believe in some kind of guerilla victory. A lot of rumours are trickling around among the protesters, rumours of people willing to get even more radical, making bombs or setting fire to government buildings. Lot of graffiti in the streets are saying “If we burn, you burn with us”. Some of them want to leave, but others are going to stay to make the Chinese government pay. So there will be some guerilla actions soon, as a way for them not to lose the battle.

What about the idea of civil war? Is this an idea that lives among the protesters?

No, because this is not about civilians against civilians. Definitely not. I would say guerrilla war because they will use all they have to win.

Compared to France, what was the main difference in the use of violence by the police? Was it very present in the protests and was it comparable to the more fascist cops in France? What were the tactics of the police?

The tactics were different. The city is different, it’s not the same as in the European territories, so there are some possibilities you cannot use in Paris or vice versa. The laws in Paris are much more police friendly than in Hong Kong. The use of GLI-F4 for example, which is a TNT-grenade used in Paris, the use of LBD40 “flash ball” grenades. This is stuff you won’t find in Hong Kong. You have rubber bullets. You have little sacs with metal balls inside, the so-called “flying punch”. You have pepper spray in many forms, like small spray canisters or paintballs with pepper spray. You have huge gas canisters, one-time use only, that spray pepper spray for 30 meters. I’ve never seen it used, but I have seen the police warning us about it.

Hong Kong is seen as a futuristic city. What about digital surveillance? Agents infiltrating the protesters?

You hear a lot of rumours about this, the use of drones, helicopters, facial recognition software. According to some rumours, the government has integrated facial recognition software in Hong Kong CCTV-cameras. You have infiltration, for sure. The protesters call them “ghosts”, they are “empty” protesters, cops dressed as protesters to infiltrate them.

What about hacking, phone surveillance?

Yes, I’ve seen a French journalist’s phone being remote-controlled during a protest, which was pretty scary. There was also the use of “dark” repression, the use of triads, or the “black society”. This is the Hong Kong mafia. This happened a few times and it’s fucking scary when it does happen. I saw some white shirts fighting right next to the police and the police just let them beat the protesters. So this is fucking scary. There is also a lot of bodies found in the Hong Kong bay, lots of apparent suicides. People who have, allegedly, been jumping off buildings. But you are not always sure who jumped off or who was thrown of. So there is a lot of rumours about this. Often when you saw some kid being arrested, they would try to yell to the press cameras: “I don’t want to commit suicide”.

Some of the people who had supposedly committed suicide, had any of them taken part in the protests at some point?

Yes, most of them for sure. This is a big issue, a lot of young people involved in the protests have been found in the streets, having either been thrown or jumped from buildings. And the families often disagree with the official position of suicide. And it’s a heavy mental load for the protesters to know that you could go to jail and never come back from it alive. If you are not filmed when you are getting arrested you might not be found again. A lot of weird stories and rumors, but it definitely has a big influence on the spirit of the protesters.

As someone from the outside, how did they treat you, regarding the protesters, the police, did you get a lot of attention?

I was very well treated by both sides, I must say. Lots of times I was invited to restaurants, taxis refused payment, lots of people were saying thank you. We were like a shield to the protesters, there was this relationship where the police could not use violence with all this foreign press present. Journalists from Hong Kong, on the other hand, they have been arrested, beaten…

The police or the customs, did they go through your camera, photos, memory cards…?

Never. Once they asked me for my press card, which I did not have. So I showed them my Swiss train pass. They did not seem to like this (laughter). It was very scary for me to be checked, but I was very lucky. Next time I will get a press card, or make a fake one. But if you go to jail and you don’t have a press card, you might go for four days in the Commissariat, uhm, the police detention centre. And there they could take your photos.

You know what they call it, the press card? They call it a “Get-out-of-jail free card”.

Yeah, but not in France (laughter). Not at all.

Did you see any protesters from other countries, or from the west?

I met two people from Dusseldorf, two really nice guys. The came to Hong Kong for one week, wanting to witness the protests and maybe be part of it for a bit. I believe there were some other European protesters during the Poly-University protests, but I was not present.

When one looks at the photos and videos you have shot, the aesthetics of it, it’s weird for someone from Europe, because it looks so futuristic. The gear, the scenery, the cops, it looks like a riot from the future.

It is. And the protesters don’t get searched before and during the protests, at least not to the same extent as in France or Europe. So they have the ability to bring a lot of stuff. Secondly, there are a lot of different associations and interest groups in Hong Kong that are working every day to get money and gear out to the protesters. If you arrive “naked” to the protests, afterwards you could go back to your house carrying a helmet, full gas mask and protective eyewear. I arrived on the first day with just a t-shirt and pants. When I came back to my apartment I was fully geared up. And for free! (Laughter). They had like ten boxes full of 3M gas masks, they just give them out. Food, water supplies… The level of organization is crazy. They are distributing the gear every day. And it’s because rich people, who cannot get involved in the streets, are putting up a lot of money so the protesters can continue the fight in the streets. Everyone is involved somehow. It’s what makes this different.

In this regard, what’s your idea of how the future will look, in terms of Hong Kong and the protesters? Because it doesn’t look like this is something that is going to die out anytime soon.

For the moment they have a big problem with the Coronavirus. Hong Kong is surrounded by China, it is the most international city of China and there are many people who are ill. So the Coronavirus is cutting through the movement right now. And I think this is good news for the authorities. To have people who don’t take to the streets anymore, and individuals being more careful around big groups of people. I don’t know how it will continue.

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